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Disability Discrimination Under the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.  A plaintiff bringing an ADA claim has two major hurdles to pass on their way to a trial: a motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment.

At the motion-to-dismiss stage, a plaintiff need only allege facts that provide “plausible support to the reduced requirements” of the prima facie case.  Thus, to survive a motion to dismiss, “what must be plausibly supported by facts alleged in the complaint is that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.  At issue is whether Plaintiff alleges facts sufficient to demonstrate that (1) he is a member of the protected class, i.e., whether he suffers from a disability as defined by the ADA, (2) he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation, and (3) there is a plausible inference he was terminated because of his disability.

A three-step approach is used to determine whether an individual has a disability under the ADA. Plaintiff must establish that (1) he suffers from a physical or mental impairment; (2) the impairment affects a “major life activity;” and (3) the impairment “substantially limits” that major life activity.  A major life activity is an activity that is “of central importance to daily life.”  The term “ ‘substantially limits’ ” is “construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and is not meant to be a demanding standard,” such that “[a]n impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered substantially limiting.”  Furthermore, whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity is a determination that “shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures,” such as medication or “learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.”

A qualified individual under the ADA is an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies or practices…meets the essential eligibility requirements for…participation in programs or activities provided by a public entity.  The “qualification” requirement of a prima facie ADA claim only requires only a minimal showing of qualification to establish a prima facie claim,” and a plaintiff “only needs to demonstrate that she possesses the basic skills necessary for performance of [the] job.”  Put another way, a plaintiff with a disability is otherwise qualified “if she is able to perform the essential functions of that job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation,” where “essential functions” means those “fundamental duties to be performed in the position in question, but not functions that are merely marginal.”

A plaintiff sustains an adverse employment action if he or she endures a “materially adverse change” in the terms and conditions of employment.

At summary judgment, claims alleging such discrimination are subject to the prima facie case framework elaborated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and its progeny.  Under this framework, if a plaintiff can show (1) that she is a member of a protected class, (2) that she was qualified for employment in the position, (3) that she suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination, a demotion, or a material loss in benefits, and (4) that there is some minimal evidence supporting an inference that her employer acted with discriminatory motivation, such a showing will raise a temporary presumption of discriminatory motivation.  If a plaintiff meets her minimal prima facie burden and obtains the temporary presumption of discriminatory intent, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.  If the employer articulates such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s reason was pretext.

Discrimination cases are complicated and difficult to win, which is why it is important to retain counsel that focuses on this area of law.  If your employer has discriminated against you based on a disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.


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